A drone crosses Rwanda’s sky at 160 kilometres per hour to transport a precious cargo—bags of blood for transfusions that can save lives in the most remote parts of the country of a thousand hills. The devices are programmed by GPS and when they are about to arrive at a health centre, a worker receives an SMS to go out to collect the order that falls in a parachute. In just over one year, 8,000 such deliveries have been made. The use of small unmanned aerial vehicles has been the Rwandan Government’s solution to deal with the country’s complicated terrain and its lack of transport infrastructure, which hinder the arrival of medicines and blood to hospitals, thereby reducing the number of deaths from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. This is just one example of how drones, used for a decade in the military sector, are breaking new ground as tools for humanitarian aid and development.
A study by the Swiss foundation FSD indicates that the uses of this technology range from the location of injured people and damage assessment after a catastrophe, to transportation, communications, access to places that cannot be reached otherwise, mapping areas such as refugee camps and the monitoring of real-time information on issues such as deforestation or the movement of human groups. “East African countries are the pioneers in these innovative solutions and are showing the rest of the world how to do it,” says Justin Hamilton, co-founder of Zipline, the company that manufactures the drones used in Rwanda and that has just announced a collaboration with the government of Tanzania for the distribution of critical medicines in hard to reach areas. By early 2018, drones will be making 2,000 life-saving deliveries per day to more than 1,000 health facilities, which will serve 10 million people across the country.
To carry out projects like this, Hamilton says that it is necessary to work directly with the population of each community to gain their trust. “People are accustomed to thinking that if there is a drone flying over their village, something bad will happen,” he says.
Raphael Brechard, head of the Geographic Information System of Doctors Without Borders in Malawi, teaches residents of the southern part of the country how “good drones” can help them. During the great floods of 2015, the Makhanga region was isolated and unable to receive aid because there were no detailed maps of the area. Today, Brechard coordinates a project that uses drones to perform the aerial mapping of that territory and, in this way, prepare the emergency teams to act during the next rainy season.
“We already have enough images to give us a clear view of flooded areas and of the safe places in case of heavy rains and we can plan the best way of getting help to people,” says Brechard. His team will share the data with local authorities to reduce the risk of disasters. “With that information, they can identify safe areas and provide infrastructure in critical zones.” In 2016, the government of Malawi joined UNICEF to accelerate, through drones, the transport of HIV testing kits to children in rural areas. The devices collect samples from local health centres and take them to specialized laboratories.
The main problem with the use of drones as a tool of humanitarian aid, according to the organizations, is the authorization to fly. “The drone is still considered as a military device and most of the countries where NGOs are involved do not have clear regulations,” Brechard says.
Nations that implement projects with these devices usually do so in cooperation with large international organizations, such as the FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), which carries out aerial mapping of the Philippines to detect which areas would be more vulnerable in the event of natural disasters and thus be able to take preventive measures.
The same agency has a project in Panama, where drones are used to monitor forests in real time in indigenous territories, with a higher accuracy than satellite images. In Ethiopia, the authorities in Addis Ababa and the UN agency use drones to launch sterilized tsetse flies over some areas of the country, with the aim of reducing the population of the species and thereby combat sleeping sickness, the disease transmitted by the insect.
Meanwhile, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) uses drones to map settlements, assess the needs of the displaced, organize their registration and plan sanitation, health and education services in refugee camps in Niger—where 250,000 people have been displaced by the violence of the Boko Haram terrorist group—as well as in Burkina Faso and Uganda.
“These devices offer a lot of data for an affordable cost. We hope that the good examples will help us continue to promote the idea of drones for doing good,” says Brechard.
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